While there are over twenty-five adaptations of Shakespeare’s greatest work (you heard me), there always seems to be a new angle that can be taken. Joel Coen, after a split from his brother, has taken on the task of finding something new to explore in the text. Polanski envisioned the film as a moody 70s horror flick, Orson Welles saw a big-budget period drama, and Justin Kurzel was drawn the idea of a gritty war film, but Coen and his wife, Frances McDormand, have created something haunted and timeless in the breadth of film history.
We know Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife, the ambitious Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), but their struggle to overcome the prophecies of the witches (Kathryn Hunter) and take the throne of King Duncan (Brenden Gleeson) has never looked like this before. All interpretations of the character thus far have envisioned him as a young man, full of piss and vinegar as he and his horny wife slaughter their way to power. Coen, however, sees an older couple. It’s no coincidence that this film was born from the whisperings of a wife, one that desired her husband to produce and direct a stage adaptation, but it feels like something they’ve both been rehearsing for their whole lives.
A lot of that comes down to the decision to cast Denzel Washington in the title role. The grizzled actor has always played sturdy-yet-sensitive characters, ones with sharp edges and prickly demeanors, and even his worst films feel like a warm hug as long as he steps back into that idea. Here, however, he’s tired and comfortable. His relationship with his wife is one of familiarity and loving trust. Each time they talk it feels like two people that know one another inside and out, opening up about a mind full of poisonous arachnids or cowardly feelings of guilt. It’s a new direction for the story, one that’s appreciated in the confident hands of its two leads. McDormand has played Lady Macbeth before, but Washington was a surprise for me. He’s always solid, but seeing him comfortably relax into iambic pentameter is a bright surprise in this gloomy film. He speaks as though destined to play the role – as though predicted by the Weird Sisters themselves.
His salt and pepper hair matches perfectly with the German Expressionist imagery that Coen crafts. Instead of traditional stage plays and realistic imagery, the work serves as an homage to the bygone era of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dreyer’s Vampyre more than anything else. Shakespeare’s masterpiece was always one of the most haunted in literature (only surpassed in ghostly paranoia by Hamlet), and it matches the visual design perfectly. Billowing fog, sterile castles that cast long, black shadows; each element drenched in the devilish contortion of its witches. By the time Macduff and Macbeth square off we’ve become a part of this world, eagerly uncomfortable in the terrifying nightmare landscape of Coen’s dreams.
Given the number of adaptations this play has had, I think it’s a miraculous achievement that we got something of this quality. Coen’s brilliant swing is definitely a home run, worthy of the material and worthy of the disconcerted taste it will leave in your mouth for days to come.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently available on AppleTV+.